After watching a laughingstock of a game where OKC suffered the worst loss in NBA history to an okay-Memphis team, even with Josh Giddey not active, I think enough is enough on the push for him to come anywhere near winning the Rookie Of The Year. This is very controversial so hear me out on this.
You play basketball to win games. You win individual awards for doing the most to reach the objective of winning. But what if you don’t play basketball to win? I argue that those players should not be looked at as potential award winners for the season they’re not really trying to win.
This is where it gets controversial because to prove that Josh Giddey or any other rookie should not win an award for playing on a tanking team, I have to prove that a commendable 6-16 Thunder team are, in fact, tanking.
Argument #1: OKC are in fact tanking
There are a lot of misconceptions about what tanking is. Tanking does not mean you lose every game. Tanking does not even imply players throw certain games. That never happens. Ever. Tanking does not mean there’s a ring of secret Russian mobsters or an underground group of league officials and coaches so engulfed by debt and corruption that they throw games based on hand signals that neither you nor I will ever understand. That’s not tanking.
Tanking simply put is when a team that has zero chance of making the playoffs by design. Their coach - instructed by the suits upstairs - fails to put lineups on the floor with a chance of actually winning the game. The earlier they make this obvious and the less discrete the fashion they do it in, the harder that team is tanking. So when the ’14 76ers led by executive Sam Hinkie told fans to “trust the process” before the season even started, which when translated reads “don’t get mad when this team goes 19-63”, that was an all-time marvelous tank.
But when OKC became the then only team to lose to the Houston Rockets all season by a staggering 33 points, 14 players on the Thunder’s roster got at least 5 minutes of playing time. In fact, their three biggest minute leaders were Luguentz Dortz at 27:07, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at 26:28, and Kenrich Williams at 22:13.
Compare that to when OKC beat the L.A Lakers by just eight points, only ten players had at least 6 minutes of playing time. Their three biggest minute leaders were Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at 37:41, Luguentz Dort at 33:57, and Josh Giddey at 32:13.
Like a dad picking out his shirt and tie for his kid’s parent-teacher meetings, the Thunder shrugged their shoulders and said, “eh, we don’t really have to use what’s best in our disposal for this one, they’re not all meant to impress.”
When you look at the Thunder’s history of signing bad contracts for picks, finishing 2-23 in the last 25 games of last season, or the fact that they still don’t have that guy yet, this season shows all the signs of what will be a grand scale tank job!
Argument #2: Rookies should not win if their team is badly tanking.
Why punish one player for the whole team? Because all the major individual NBA awards cut out players from contention for team achievement. Every MVP dating back to at least the ’90s has been on a team that amassed the first, second or third seed except for Russell Westbrook. Has there been a Defensive Player Of The Year on a team with below-average defense? Not in my lifetime. Basketball is a small team sport; if you can’t impact games in a winning way, then you can’t be looked at for an award.
If it’s not already clear enough, tanking and losing a lot of games are two different phenomenons. Most’ Rookie of the Year’ winners are on teams that don’t make the playoffs because most rookies are not good enough to drag their likely lottery teams to the playoffs on their first try. That needs to be understood.
Ja Morant deservingly won ‘Rookie of the Year’ for a 34 win-Grizzlies team. LaMelo Ball deservingly won on a 33-win Charlotte team. Karl Anthony-Towns and Blake Griffin were both legit winners despite no post-season appearances. It must also be made clear that a team can tank right at the end of the season, like with Kyrie Irving’s, Damien Lillard’s, and Luka Doncic’s rookie campaigns - which is not the same as obviously throwing away games a week into the season.
What I expect the Thunder will do is push Giddey to the 30 minutes a game mark against top teams and below 25 against teams like the Magic or Pelicans as NBA casuals ask themselves, ‘how the hell did Thunder lose to those guys… and by that much?’. After the All-Star break, this team will go from Space Jam to Semi-Pro in the midst of much general confusion and lost bets.
Giddey’s stats will improve, but it can’t be understated what it takes to perform well on a semi-good team as a rookie. For Scottie Barnes to seamlessly fit into the Raptors, Chris Duarte impacting games in crunch time, Evan Mobley uplifting the reputation of the Cavaliers by the day. It’s so much more impressive than putting up similar stats on a bad team.
The only scenario in which it’s OK for a player on an obviously tanking team to win ROTY is if the draft class is historically bad. It’s not a situation of Michael Carter-Williams in 2014 when the next ranked player with 88 fewer first-place votes was a young and raw Victor Oladipo. Or in 2015 with Andrew Wiggins, when the next ranked player with 96 fewer first-place votes was Nikola Mirotic. This is all dependent on the shape of the league, but that climate does not fit into 2021-22.
There are a lot of great players contributing with minutes that mean something - and that has to count.